Concerns about food packaging chemicals ‘overstated’, Australian experts

Posted by AFN Staff Writers on 3rd March 2014
Food packaging is not dangerous, Australian experts have said

Australian experts have reassured Australians that the chemicals in plastic food packaging are not harmful to human health.

Dr Ian Musgrave, a Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Medicine, School of Medicine Sciences, within the Discipline of Pharmacology at the University of Adelaide, and Dr Oliver Jones, Lecturer in Analytical Chemistry and Co-director of the RMIT University Centre of Environmental Sustainability and Remediation (EnSuRe) made the comments after a commentary written by environmental scientists for the Food Packaging Forum Foundation claimed that many of the substances used in food packaging were not inert and could leach into the foods contained in the packaging.

The original paper, co-authored by Jane Muncke, John Peterson Myers, Martin Scheringer and Miquel Porta and was published on 19 February 2014 in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. The authors wrote that chemicals in food packaging may be harmful to human health over the long term.

The Food Packaging Forum Foundation (FPFF) is a Swiss-based not-for-profit that was established in mid-2012. Its current main donors are Consol, Bucher Emhart Glass, OI and Vetropack, and it has also received funding from the European Environment and Health Initiative. Its mission is to work in collaboration with scientific experts “to enhance basic understanding of scientific principles and recent scientific findings that are relevant to the field of food packaging health”.

The Food Packaging Forum Foundation (FPFF) authors had written that despite the fact that some of the chemicals are regulated, people who eat packaged or processed foods were likely to be “chronically exposed to low levels of these substances throughout their lives”. According to the FPFF, “far too little” is known about the long-term impact of the chemicals, including at crucial stages of human development, such as in the womb, which is “surely not justified on scientific grounds”.

FPFF authors’ concerns

The FPFF authors wrote that lifelong exposure to food contact materials (FCMs) — substances used in packaging, storage, processing or preparation equipment — “is a cause for concern for several reasons”. They said the reasons included the fact that known toxicants, such as formaldehyde, a cancer causing substance, were legally used in these materials. According to the FPFF authors, formaldehyde was widely present, albeit at low levels, in plastic bottles used for fizzy drinks and melamine tableware.

The FPFF authors also said that other chemicals known to disrupt hormone production, including bisphenol A, tributyltin, triclosan, and phthalates, were also present in FCMs.

“Whereas the science for some of these substances is being debated and policy makers struggle to satisfy the needs of stakeholders, consumers remain exposed to these chemicals daily, mostly unknowingly,” the FPFF authors wrote.

The FPFF authors said that total number of known chemical substances used intentionally in FCMs exceeds 4000.

Finally, the FPFF authors claimed that potential cellular changes caused by FCMs, and in particular, those with the capacity to disrupt hormones, were “not even being considered” in routine toxicology analysis. This prompted the FPFF authors to suggest that this “casts serious doubts on the adequacy of chemical regulatory procedures.”

The FPFF authors admitted that establishing potential cause and effect as a result of lifelong and largely invisible exposure to FCMs would be no easy task, largely because there were no unexposed populations to compare with, and there were likely to be wide differences in exposure levels among individuals and across certain population groups.

But they argued that some sort of population-based assessment and biomonitoring were urgently needed to tease out any potential links between food contact chemicals and chronic conditions like cancer, obesity, diabetes, neurological and inflammatory disorders, particularly given the known role of environmental pollutants.

“Since most foods are packaged, and the entire population is likely to be exposed, it is of utmost importance that gaps in knowledge are reliably and rapidly filled,” they wrote.

Australian experts’ counter-arguments

Dr Ian Musgrave, from the Faculty of Medicine at the University of Adelaide, said it was “very hard to take seriously” an article that made such statements about formaldehyde.

“Formaldehyde is also present in many foods naturally, to consume as much formaldehyde as is present in a 100g apple you would need to drink at least 20 litres of mineral water that had been stored in PET bottles,” Dr Musgrave said. “Obviously the concern about formaldehyde from food packaging is significantly overrated, unless we are willing to place ‘potential cancer hazard’ stickers on fresh fruit and vegetables,” he said.

“While we should not be dismissive of the potential for undesirable materials in packaging to migrate into food, the risks are exceptionally small,” Dr Musgrave said.

Dr Oliver Jones, Co-director of the RMIT University Centre of Environmental Sustainability and Remediation (EnSuRe), agreed that the paper’s title was “needlessly alarmist”.

“There are a lot of possibilities and maybes in this article and while there may be a case for more research into some of the chemicals mentioned, particularly the endocrine disruptors, this article does not make it very well,” Dr Jones said.

“The overwhelming weight of scientific opinion (including that from Food Standards Australia and New Zealand) is that there is no health or safety issue from these chemicals at the levels people are exposed to,” Dr Jones said. “More research is always welcome from a scientist’s point of view, but I would hazard a guess that the high levels of fat, sugar and salt in a lot of today’s processed food are more of a health concern than any migration of chemicals from the packaging,” he said.